Complexity Has Growing Pains

On my desk in front of me sits a model of the Dreamliner in Boeing signature colors. I smile when I gaze at it; although I can’t imagine there are smiles in the Boeing offices right now. Plagued by multiple production delays the Dreamliner final made its entry into revenue service in late 2011 with the industry closely watching. The unfortunate events of the past week pointing toward the lithium-ion batteries are the most concerning yet. Consequently aviation industry news today is a buzz with official statements, industry commentary, and of course opinions.

On January 16th the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an emergency airworthiness directive that requires 787 operators in this country to temporarily halt operations due to potential battery fire risks. Regulatory agencies around the world followed announcing similar mandates. Prior to this the FAA and Boeing announced plans of a comprehensive review of the aircraft’s design, manufacture, and assembly, which would include the battery system. Given the emergency AD, I can only imagine the battery system is already being vigorously reviewed.

It was just over a year ago when I stood on the floor of Boeing’s widebody plant in Everett, WA, marveling at arguably the most technologically advanced airliner today being assembled. The 787 like other new generation aircraft are complex machines having complex systems, and obviously complexity does have its growing pains. However, isn’t the purpose of testing and certification to verify engineering analysis and design? Are we not seeing unknown or undetected factors of complexity until after advanced technology is placed into service? It will be interesting to watch this story unfold. 

It’s difficult to say whether these recent events and temporary groundings will affect the more than 800 Dreamliner orders on the books. My hope is root-cause is found, fixes put in place, and the Dreamliner flies again real soon.